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Image source, Reuters
Image caption,

Michael Collins stayed in lunar orbit as his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon

Michael Collins – one of the three crew members of the first manned mission to land on the Moon, Apollo 11 in 1969 – has died aged 90, his family say.

He died on Wednesday after “a valiant battle with cancer. He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side,” they said.

Collins stayed in lunar orbit as his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon.

Aldrin, 91, is now the only surviving member of the mission.

Paying tribute to Collins, Aldrin wrote in a tweet: “Dear Mike, Wherever you have been or will be, you will always have the Fire to Carry us deftly to new heights and to the future. We will miss you. May you Rest In Peace.”

‘We felt the weight of the world on our shoulders’

“We will miss him terribly. Yet we also know how lucky Mike felt to have lived the life he did.

“We will honour his wish for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life.”

Media caption,

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins on Moon mission

On 16 July 2019, Collins visited Florida’s Kennedy Space Center – the site where the mission had set off exactly 50 years earlier.

Speaking at launchpad 39A – where the crew’s rocket began the historic mission – he described how he felt during take-off.

“The shockwave from the rocket power hits you,” Collins told Nasa TV. “Your whole body is shaking. This gives you an entirely… different concept of what power really means.”

“You’re suspended in the cockpit… as you lift off,” he continued. “From then on it’s a quieter, more rational, silent ride all the way to the Moon.

“We crew felt the weight of the world on our shoulders, we knew that everyone would be looking at us, friend or foe.”

Unsung hero of the first Moon landing

By Paul Rincon, Science editor, BBC News website

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin garnered most of the attention for the historic first Moon landing in 1969.

But their crewmate, Michael Collins, was just as important for the success of the mission.

As the command module pilot, Collins stayed in lunar orbit while Neil and Buzz bounded across the surface. But he performed crucial manoeuvres in space that were needed to get to the Moon.

He was sanguine about others getting the glory: “I certainly thought that I did not have the best seat of the three,” he said. “But I can say in all honesty, I was thrilled with the seat that I did have.”

After leaving Nasa, he had a brief spell in politics, but later retired to Florida, where he painted and wrote.

Despite joining Twitter in 2019, at the age of 88, he admitted that he never really enjoyed the spotlight of public life.

But his name will live on, as a new generation of astronauts prepares to return to the Moon in the next few years, following the trail blazed by Collins and the other pioneers of Apollo.

What was the Apollo 11 mission?

On 16 July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were strapped into their Apollo spacecraft on top of the vast Saturn V rocket and were propelled into orbit in just over 11 minutes.

Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the lunar surface. Collins remained in the command module throughout the mission.

Armstrong’s words, beamed to the world by TV, entered history: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Image caption,

US astronaut Buzz Aldrin pictured on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission

About 400,000 people worked on the programme, at a cost at the time of $25bn.

The crew returned to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on 24 July.

An estimated 650 million people worldwide watched the Moon landing. For the US, the achievement helped it demonstrate its power to a world audience.